(Joy Division, Transmission)
It is not yet dawn. The city is a distant murmur. Laid out on the desk before him are the tools of his nightly excursions, boxed in metal, wired together, patiently waiting. He places the headphones over his ears, flicks the switch at the side of the machine. Outside, through the window, he can see no people, no passing cars. It is raining. Clouds turn queasily in the sky. A bird begins singing, somewhere out of sight.
The first rush of sound welcomes him back; that familiar fuzz of static that sluices through his ears, engulfs his brain, and plunges him into the flux. He reaches for the dial and brushes its ridged edge with his fingertips, letting his ears adjust to the nuances of the night. Hiss. Crackle. Warmth. Wondering briefly what he is about to discover, if anything, he closes his eyes. Sometimes the nights are barren, sometimes not.
Rain falls more heavily, patters against the window with a sound like soft applause. A quick bite of his lip, a scratch of his neck. Everything is ready. He turns on the tape machine, presses Record. The heads spin in their plastic window.
Lightning whitens the road for an epileptic second. Pavements, cars, gutters and shops: everything’s bleached by the light.
‘That’s what, the hundredth time this hour?
The café is the only place open along this long, dark, featureless road, and it’s packed. People are loitering among the tables in clothes so wet that liquid shadows are gathering around their feet. None of them wants to be marooned in this low-lit, white-tiled little place on a Friday night. But here they are, imprisoned by falling water.
‘Is your phone still fucked?’ I ask
Everything stopped working once the storm began. Mobiles, the internet, the wall-mounted TV: all of them paralysed. The only means of communication with the outside world – albeit one-way – is the old radio on the counter. It crackles away in the background, but the reception is so corrupted that all we’re picking up are cut-off sentences, half-formed words, the flotsam of shipwrecked news bulletins.
‘Fraid so,’ says Jimmy. ‘Not even one bar.’ Even though we’re indoors and it’s nearing midnight, he’s wearing his round sunglasses. He pushes them further up his nose. Dark grey coins instead of eyes.
Jimmy and I were on our way back to my place when the storm hit, sudden and hard. Fat balls of water came crashing down, drumming on car bonnets, choking the gutters, snapping branches off fragile trees. Forests of lightning strobed in the sky, and for a moment it was brighter than day – a flat fluorescent glare that killed all colour. We stood in a doorway as the road became a river and thunder rumbled through the mountainous cloud. Lit office blocks went black. Alarms began to wail. I saw the café glowing at the far end of the road. We made a run for it.
The woman behind the counter is grappling with the coffee machine. Steam hisses from slits and tubes. I can smell something burning.
‘I think it’s broken,’ I say. ‘Like everything else.’
Jimmy ignores me. He’s been looking over my shoulder for a while, checking out some girl.
—veer electrical storms ince—1998 wh—ndreds of—p—ower cutssshhhhhh—oars havoc by para—eye—sing—
Listening to this distorted monologue reminds me of a man I read about. He was sitting in his London flat one night, combing the global static with a shortwave radio, when he made a discovery. Somewhere between weather reports from Japan, news bulletins from Zurich, maritime news from Newfoundland, he picked up a voice. It was reading a chain of numbers. After the sequence came to an end it began again, repeating for hours. At first he thought he’d stumbled across an anomaly, a lone voice lost in the wilderness. But as he spun the dial over the following weeks and months, he discovered more and more monologues. Always the same woman’s accent: precise, robotic, deadpan. Most were sequences of numbers, but a few used words, and some were accompanied by music. He began to record them. Every day, like clockwork, the mantras looped – until one day they would vanish.
Jimmy takes a sip of lukewarm tea. I want another coffee, but I’ve had four since we got here. There’s that tight feeling in my chest from too much caffeine.
‘I wish the TV was working,’ I say, glancing up at the screen.
‘Not too bothered,’ says Jimmy. ‘Don’t watch television anymore.’
‘All that processed information. Subliminal advertising. I can’t watch it without thinking there’s more going on there than I notice. Things in the background I just absorb.’
‘Like secret messages?’
‘Invisible influence. It might not register consciously, but still.’ He shrugs. ‘Similar thing with microwaves.’
I think about the surface-top oven in my kitchen, with its broken buttons and rotating plate.
‘I don’t get it.’
‘Oh, you know. This idea’s been going round for ages that some part of the government is using pylons to change the way we think. Scramble our brains, make us depressed.’
‘Whatever,’ I say. ‘Those conspiracy theories are too neat. The world’s a mess. No one has control over any of it.’
Jimmy picks up a teaspoon and begins to fiddle.
‘It’s probably bullshit. But the air is saturated with frequencies. Everywhere we go we’re swimming in it, night and day. See, even here.’ He moves his hand in a slow wave, flexing his fingers. ‘This constant bombardment of wavelengths which we can’t see, hitting us from all directions. Don’t you think it’s maybe affecting us?’
‘I hadn’t ever thought about it, to be honest. It’s just air.’
‘It’s more than that though. It’s a carrier of information. When you talk to someone on a mobile, what happens to your voice? It doesn’t teleport. It travels thousands of miles, up into space.’
I tell Jimmy about the guy with his radio.
‘How long ago was this, like the nineteen-fifties?’
I shake my head.
‘A few years ago,’ I say. ‘He was just some nut who got hooked on finding these things, you know. Found them spooky or comforting or whatever. He posted like ten years’ worth of recordings on the web. I even download some. No one else had ever noticed they existed.’ Jimmy gives me a look. ‘Not convinced?’
‘Sounds like a myth.’
‘And mind-bending microwaves doesn’t?’
‘I never said you had to believe in it. Just that you should consider the possibility, is all.’
I glance down at the things arranged on the chequered tablecloth: a napkin dispenser, a sugar pot and a salt shaker. They form a triangle.
‘I’m getting another tea,’ Jimmy says. ‘Want anything?’
He goes up to the counter and begins to make small talk with a scrawny man in a trench coat. I can’t hear what they’re saying.
—idge just soun—ll we need t—sink—eyes—
The radio lets out another fizzling wave. The words must have travelled miles before arriving at that tiny, rasping speaker cone – must still be travelling now, out beyond the city and over the fields, coming to life in kitchens, hallways, empty rooms.
He sees the world’s transmissions fan out like rays from a billion bulbs, coating the planet in an ocean of light. Twisting the dial as incrementally as he can, he makes his slow, forensic way through these flows and cross-currents. He combs only the highest frequencies, those that reflect off the skin of the atmosphere and return altered, skewed somehow by the ionised tides of the sun. Each transmission bears the crackling patina of this universal interference, lingering heat trails and electromagnetic auras. The air is not neutral. It changes the messages, colours and scars them.
He makes a note in his pad, adding to the swelling catalogue.
The room is as small as a friar’s cell, cluttered with boxes of disks, tapes, and reel-to-reels, a humming modem and an old computer. One wall is covered in pinned-up tables and diagrams. There are shelves of notebooks inscribed with each message’s content, date and time. A chair upholstered in threadbare beige. A tape recorder and a stack of blanks. On the desk, illuminated by the window, is the brushed chrome box of the radio, its antenna pointing wand-like towards the sky.
The headphones envelop him in their shifting web of sound, lift him, carry him up, take him elsewhere, until he feels that he is not listening but wandering, cresting the grey dunes of a shivering landscape, passing towers of light and deserts of static. Time passes. There is flicker in the image, a tremor. He leans forward, resting his chin on his upturned hand. The signal becomes fuzzy, opaque, and is finally lost.
He opens his eyes.
‘Shall we go?’
I pick up my coat and shake off the few drops which remain.
‘Yeah.’ Jimmy says. ‘Let me finish my tea.’
‘But it’s cold.’
‘I like cold tea.’
Jimmy and I have been discussing whether or not to leave for the past half hour. The storm is still raging, but we’re growing bored of each other’s company, agitated, keen to leave. The plan is simple: to run from doorway to doorway, awning to overhang, as we make our fugitive way home. It’s only a ten or fifteen minute walk, in normal conditions. I’m not sure how long it will take tonight.
—ight of emergence—sea—
Jimmy slurps and smacks his lips.
‘Done,’ he says. ‘Let’s roll.’
‘Aren’t you going to take those glasses off?’
‘I never take these off. You should know that.’
‘I do know it. I just don’t understand it. Not when we’re about to run into a deluge in the middle of the night. It’ll be hard enough seeing where we’re going with all that rain, not to mention—’ I carry on like this for a few minutes, until Jimmy has had enough. He takes off his glasses. It’s the first time I’ve seen his eyes in months. They are small and icy turquoise, set deep above his cheekbones. He blinks and squints.
We shrug on our coats, raise the hoods, close up as many openings as possible. I tuck my trousers into my socks. Several people look up at us, bemused. Two women dart over, ask if we’re leaving, and lower into our seats with groans of relief. We push through the standing figures. There’s a smell of damp carpet. Coats are bejewelled with raindrops. Hair straggles wet over pale scalps and wrinkled foreheads. Someone tells us we’re braver than he is, going out in that. At the door we pause.
‘Sure you’re up for it?’ I ask, raising my voice against the water. Jimmy shrugs.
‘Let’s just do it. If we think about it for any length of time, we’ll realise it’s a stupid idea.’
The frame of the door is chattering. Rain flails against the windows.
‘Let’s head for that awning,’ I say, pointing to an abandoned cinema over the road.
—ore information die—the following—umber
Out, down, look left and right: go. I’m soaked through in seconds. It’s so humid I can hardly breathe. Water rages in front of my eyes. I reach the awning and crash against the wall. Jimmy is laughing.
‘Fuck,’ he says.
The rain tastes slightly metallic. It’s running all over my face. I wipe it off.
‘We could always go back,’ Jimmy says.
I look over the road. An audience has gathered at the cafe’s window, squashing their foreheads against the streaming glass. The room behind them is bright, and a honey-coloured glow spills out onto the pavement. One of them is laughing. The rest look horrified.
‘Fuck it. We’re this wet already. I say let’s go.’
Farther down the road is a supermarket we passed on the way here, one of those budget frozen food places with the chilly neon aisles. There was a hooded recess at the front door, easily large enough for both of us.
‘Yeah, I remember it,’ Jimmy says. ‘Are you sure it was that close?’
I’m pretty sure. I wasn’t paying it much attention.
‘Either way it’s down this pavement, on the left.’
On the count of three, we run.
I enter a world of noise and water. All I can make out through the porthole of my hood is a splattered blur of vertical lines. Wet jeans suck at my legs. There’s a noise among the noise, a yell. Light flashes through an impossible sculpture of raindrops.
Minutes later I see the supermarket’s red sign. I slip on something pale and pulpy and get up again, stumbling on exhausted legs. Then I’m inside, sheltered in the doorway, soaked to the skin. The walls are covered with stippled, flesh-coloured tiles. Jimmy isn’t here.
After I’ve got my breath back I lean out, look down both sides. But it’s a chaos of water, streetlamps, distance.
Knowing it’s pointless, I scroll down my address book and dial Jimmy’s number. Nothing but a flat-lining bleep. I try again. I send a text message, which fails. I yell repeatedly, stick my arm out, wave. I wait, growing more agitated, imagining things: Jimmy face-down in a drain, or cowering over a broken ankle. He’s here somewhere, a matter of metres away. The storm clatters and swirls, whipping curtains of rain into the doorway. I could be anywhere.
It’s a strange feeling, re-entering the room, realizing that this is where he has been all along. The weather has worsened. Raindrops batter the windowpane. Lightning flashes through the clouds, illuminating their murky innards. These electrical spasms have torn holes through the broadcasts. Transmissions are fragile, and easily break.
He decides it is time for a rest. The antenna will remain where it is, fixed against the frequencies like a needle in its vinyl groove, and he, likewise, will rest. He turns down the volume and feels tiredness flood through his limbs.
It has occurred to him often that the voices might no longer be alive. That they might in fact have been recorded many years ago, looped and replayed and arranged into new code by the espionage agencies he suspects are behind the messages. This is what he is coming to believe: the voices are clandestine, speak only to spies. He thinks of the words and numbers laid out in strips of magnetic tape, readily rearranged into new encrypted collages. All digital now, of course; none of that hassle with scalpels and Sellotape. Yet the woman once sat in a room in front of a microphone and enunciated each word, shaped it with her throat and lips. Echo. Foxtrot. Golf. Hotel. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Each syllable clear as a bell in the hushed studio. Was she aware these words would outlive her?
He leans back in the old chair and thinks. He has spent so many hours attuned to other’s voices, listening, fulfilling only one part in the exchange. What of the other role, the one who speaks? It may be time to send something back.
The means are all within sight: microphone, tape machine, transmitter, up there on the cluttered shelves. He would need to buy some specialist components and do some repairs, read up on how to rig the circuits. The key would be longevity, to keep the message looping and the transmitter alive. Like bodies, machines decay. But such a message, properly prepared, might outlast its maker by several years. He imagines the rigged machinery. He would have to put it some place high and isolated, an attic or rooftop or tower. The tape player loops infinitely. The transmitter’s pilot light glows. The message is sent, is sent, is sent: concentric rings of widening broadcast.
Leaning forward, he tears a page from his notebook and begins to think. He could learn encryption, develop a personal code; something that would have the spies scribbling over their own notebooks with frowns of confusion, untangling chains of gibberish. He could send himself out in a capsule, state his name, location, age. Or he could be instead that thing he was looking for at the start, when this began.
It takes half an hour to carve the message down to its essential parts. It consists of two elements only: a word and a sound. Bare bones. It has nothing to do with him, this word, nothing personal or unique. It is so simple, so commonplace, and so naive, that he begins to smile. He practices the word, forming it in his mouth, getting the intonation right. The woman’s voice is unique among the airwaves because it is intentionally anonymous, and this, he realises, is what makes her familiar. He works on the accent, washing it clean, cooling his voice right down until it is neutral and unaffected. That way he’ll be like her: a human cipher.
I stand in my front room and wonder what to do. There’s been a power cut, so all the lights are dead – I had to use the pale blue screen of my mobile to pick my stumbling way up the twists of the stairwell. Flung over a chair back, my coat hangs leaden and cold and drooling onto the floor. I make my way into the bedroom, scrub myself down with a towel, and change.
The kitchen window lets in hardly any light, a dim grey glow like the last emissions of a dying sun. I look around the objects, half-familiar in the darkness. The gleaming cutlery. The white hood of the hob. A pan and its lumpy, unidentifiable contents. There’s a torch somewhere in here, in some forgotten cupboard or drawer. Think.
A while later I’ve found it hidden in a musty heap of stuff behind the cleaning products. I lean in, scan with my phone, pick it out. Something else catches my eye. I take that too.
Thankfully some batteries are left, but they’re running low. I point the amber light at the paint-spattered radio. It was on in the background constantly while I repainted the walls and cupboards, put up the shelves and pictures during the first months after moving in. On its front is a plastic window divided up like a ruler, behind which the red strip moves as I twist the dial. There were so many competing programmes, so many local pirate stations, that it was almost impossible to get a clean signal. Instead I tuned to some in-between hinterland and let the music collide on its field of static, elaborate classical fugues spliced with the swaggering thuds of club music.
Guided by the sepia torchlight, I locate the armchair beside the window. One of the things I like about this place is how high up it is, towering over the surrounding buildings with a clear view of the distant office blocks and their blipping rooftop lights. I see apartments, houses, flats like mine. The roofs and balconies are encrusted with spindly aerials and flat black dishes. Windows everywhere, opening up on private lives.
I think about Jimmy, no doubt safe and pissed off and waiting out the storm, and glance out the window. The slanting rainfall lends a vertiginous perspective to the street below. I can’t see anyone. I sit down.
Usually I plugged the radio into the wall, but there’s a cavity in the back for batteries. Emptying out the torch, I guide them into their sprung grooves by touch. On. A sound like approaching tide.
Hiss. Pure noise. I twist the dial.
Voices emerge, foreign and tremulous. The noise fluctuates, summoning clipped words and music. But for the most part it’s featureless white noise. I heard somewhere that most of the static picked up by antennas and aerials is caused by the Big Bang’s afterglow, the background radiation of past events. Interference. I soon give up on trying to find anything useful, sit back, place the radio down on the coffee table. It’s late, around four or five, and I’m exhausted. My eyes are closed but I can almost see the sound which fills the room: a fog of dancing particles, or a blue-grey swarm. A pattern begins to emerge. Something buried shuffles off its soil, becoming clearer. I sit up and focus my ears. The alterations between the signal and the surrounding noise are subtle and minute. But they’re there.
I am sure it’s a voice. In my language. A man. The sound quality is poor, barely audible. But enough of an imprint survives for me to begin to pick out the word. The word and the sound.
I listen hard, press my ear against the speaker.
‘Hello? Beep… Hello? Beep… Hello?’
Through the window and over the serrated horizon of rooftops, a grey tint bleeds through the sky. Feeling cleansed but dissatisfied, he reaches forward for one last turn of the dial. The radio took him into its world, surrounded him, moved through him like the Holy Ghost, but tonight, as with so many nights, kept hidden what he’d been hunting for. For hours he spun the dial, his ears attuned to any hint of that strange, familiar sound. Tango. Foxtrot. Hotel. Zero one two three nine. These hieroglyphics etched onto the airwaves by some anonymous soul, somewhere beyond the horizon.
Soon his voice will be a part of that invisible discord. Another that others listen for.
He waits for a few more minutes, just in case, reluctant to break off his end of the connection. The tape player makes a click as its recording comes to an end. No matter. Leave it in the machine, record over it again. He turns the dial until it rests at its lowest frequency. This is where the night ends, and where the next night’s search begins. For a few hushed minutes he listens as the crackling take on tones, inflexions, phonemes.
Blink. It is time for sleep. He removes the headphones, places them back on the desk. Flicks the switch at the machine’s side.
There are people outside, now, as the city wakes: prim businessmen on their way to work, haggard party-goers on their way home. Cars drone quietly past. Glancing up at the sky, he notices something move against the darkness. A pin-prick of sliding light, like a star on wire. At first he assumes it is a plane. But it moves too swift, too sure, too high. He thinks of satellites, in endless orbit.